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How Lucas Peterson Dines on a Dime Around the World

A pro traveler’s take on traveling and dining well while on a tight budget

Lucas Peterson on Dining on a Dime, Season 6
Lucas Peterson on Dining on a Dime, Season 6

This week on the Eater Upsell podcast, we talk to star of Eater’s longest running show Dining on a Dime and author of the New York Times Frugal Traveler column Lucas Peterson to discuss the schlep that goes in to putting together his column and what it’s like being the cheap eats guy. Oh, and the explosive reaction he had to some spicy food during his last visit to China.

Here are six major takeaways from one of the world’s pre-eminent professional travelers:

On the benefits of traveling cheaply: “I think, with dining and with travel, generally speaking, money separates you from the experience. The more money you put into a trip, the more money you spend, the more high-end you go, the more you’re removing yourself from that place. When you stay in a very expensive resort, high-end hotels, or high-end restaurants, you’re sort of ensuring that you’re not...challenging yourself very much. You’re not really getting to experience a lot of what it’s like to actually live in the’re not really even making the effort.”

On maximizing AirBnB: “You go to your Airbnb, you look in the place and you look for old people. You look for old people, because they’re usually really nice. They usually had kids that left, and they’re usually Airbnb-ing a room in their place because they’re lonely and because they’re looking to make some money, but they’re looking to sort of have someone else in the house. It’s a win-win. They want to show you stuff, they want to tell you stuff, they want to take you around. If you’re really looking to get that sort of local perspective, I really like doing that.”

On shitting his pants in China: “I was in Chengdu on my first day. I’d eaten some big, spicy fish the night before. I was going to this other neighborhood that was like a half an hour, 40 minutes away. I’m just eating stuff on the way. Then I’m in this little hole in the wall restaurant in this little neighborhood in the middle of nowhere, in the western part of Chengdu, and I realize something very bad is happening in my stomach area. This is very bad and this is going to become a real big problem, right now, like right now. I asked, ‘Do you have a bathroom?’ They’re like, ‘No, we don’t have a bathroom.’ I’m just walking along, I’m desperately searching for something. It’s all happening so fast. We’re also in a 12 million person city in China, so there’s no privacy. There’s no anything. There nowhere to hide. It’s just like apartment blocks and people and their kids and bikes. Long story short, I crapped my pants on the street. I just walked home. That’s my story.”

On how to guard against gastrointestinal distress: “I have a Life Straw. If you’re traveling somewhere where the water is not good. Most hotels have a hot pot, so I boil water and then I drink that water. I think if you’re spending an extended amount of time in Asia or Latin America, a lot of these places, you’re going to get sick, a little bit. Just wash stuff. Be careful, especially, of things like lettuce, which are hard to clean. Stay away from ice. Ice is frequently not made with filtered water. You just sort of have to walk the line of risk/reward. What am I willing to? If you’re eating street food, if you eat something that’s deep fried, that’s probably safer than eating some sort of raw thing or raw vegetables.”

On how traveling professionally can ruin the fun: “It’s like you’ve hit fast forward on a trip so you’re not lingering. You’re not enjoying. I feel like at the end of a vacation, you’re sort of like, oh, no, I wish vacation weren’t over. Instead, I’m just like, phew, I got through 12 museums and 15 restaurants. You’re just trying to hit so many different things...When you find a beautiful beach, it’s like, great, I found this beautiful beach, I’ve got to go. It’s not a natural way to travel.”

Lucas’ advice for everyday travelers: “Do the opposite of what I do when I travel. Don’t do too much. That would be my advice for all travelers. Don’t try to do too much. When you schedule your time so rigidly, then you feel like you’re on a cruise and you have all these activities. You don’t want it to a job. You want it to be enjoyable and fun and relaxing so you can enjoy things and sort of linger and be flexible. Be open to changing your plans, doing something else, but I would say, under-plan.”

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